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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: "Cantatas for Hamburg"

Simone Kermes, soprano; Lydia Vierlinger, contralto; Markus Schäfer, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass
Wiener Kammerchor (Johannes Prinz), Wiener Akademie
Dir: Martin Haselböck
rec: Nov 5-6, 2001, Vienna, Hofburgkapelle (live recording)
ORF - CD 306 (2 CDs; 39'49"/48'58")

Danket dem Herrn (Dankhymne der Freundschaft, ein Geburtstagsstück) (H 824e); Mache dich auf, werde licht (Herrn Pastors Gerling Einführungsmusik) (H 821h)

In 1767 Georg Philipp Telemann, Music Director of Hamburg, died. This was an excellent opportunity for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to get away from his duties in Berlin, where he got increasingly frustrated by the lack of approval from Frederick II. His income was pretty low, lower than that of the King's favourite musician, Johann Joachim Quantz. And Hamburg was an interesting city to be. It was one of the largest and most powerful cities of Germany, and a centre of the German Enlightenment. During his time in Hamburg Carl Philipp Emanuel became one of the most respected citizens, who stood in regular contact with a poet like Klopstock and the philosopher Cramer.

The cantatas recorded here were not intended for the regular church services, but for religious meetings with a special character. The first CD contains the cantata Mache dich auf, werde licht, which was composed as an introductory piece as part of the induction ceremony of the new minister Gerling in 1777. It is scored for 4 solo voices, choir and a pretty opulent orchestra of 2 oboes, bassoon, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The second cantata, Danket dem Herrn, is a cantata written for the birthday of an unknown person in Hamburg. Here Bach requires an orchestra of 2 oboes (alternating with 2 flutes), bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo.
The cantatas clearly reflect the thinking and mentality of the Enlightenment. One of its features is the emphasis on a morally good life. In the introductory cantata the old pastor is hailed for setting with his life the best possible example to his congregation, which is urged to follow that example. Characteristic is also the use of the name Jehovah or Allgütiger for God, something you won't find in cantatas of the baroque period. The personal, sometimes even intimate mood in these cantatas provide a link to the Empfindsamkeit. One may wonder why the birthday cantata is called a 'hymn of thanksgiving for friendship', and is mainly in praise of God as he manifests himself in nature. The emphasis is on God as friend of people - another typical idea of the Enlightenment. In his Passionskantate 'Die letzten Leiden des Erlösers' (Wq 233/H 776) Jesus Christ is called Menschenfreund. And nature is one of the ways in which God demonstrates his friendship for mankind. Apart from that, the Enlightenment had a fascination for nature. Works like this cantata - or Telemann's cantata Alles redet itzt und singet (TWV 20,10) or Haydn's oratorios Die Schöpfung and Die Jahreszeiten - don't reflect the radical branch of the Enlightenment which deifies nature: here God is still a person and seen as the Creator of the world. But the long and detailed descriptions of natural phenomena, like bird singing, but also thunderstorms or smells, are eloquent evidence of the interest in nature.

Both cantatas are divided into two sections, one before and one after the sermon. Other similarities with the German sacred cantata of the baroque are the sequence of recitatives and arias. Some of the recitatives are secco recitatives which are most closely linked to the past, in particular as their rhetorical character is concerned. The recitativi accompagnati are directing towards the future. In particular the birthday cantata reminds of Haydn's oratorios. The orchestra is illustrating the content of the arias, most impressively in the desciptions of natural phenomena: the flute for the trills of the bird and the bassoon for the growls of the lion. There are even chorales, on traditional melodies, like Ein feste Burg or Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten, but on different texts. These reflect again the spirit of the Enlightenment, for example in the chorale "Du heiliges Licht" from the introductory cantata, which says: "Treib aus von uns des Irrtums Nacht" (drive away from us the night of ignorance). In these chorales, though, Carl Philipp Emanuel comes most close to his father's style. In the birthday cantata he even uses a chorale setting by Johann Sebastian: "Heilig, heilig, heilig ist der Herre Zebaoth" (BWV 325). As surprising as that may be, there are even more astonishing things in these cantatas, in particular in the birthday cantata. The long chorus at the end of Part 1 is a rondo. The A sections consist of a setting of Psalm 150 in form of a contradance. This is interspersed by a setting of the chorale "Aus voller Seele lob ich dich" on the melody of the Christmas chorale "Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, alle gleich". Some verses are set for one or two solo voices with a couple of instruments in a very archaic style, some for choir a capella which stylistically are very close to Mendelssohn. The chorus at the end of Part 2, which closes the whole cantata is remarkable in that it has the form of a vaudeville as used in the Singspiel. The melody is sung 9 times in an exchange between choir and soloists. The last strophe sums up the character of this cantata - and its closeness to Haydn's Jahreszeiten - quite well: "Wahrlich hat der Wonne Gottes Erde viel: Wein und Lenzensonne, und der Saiten Spiel, Freundschaft, Gattenliebe, Ehre, Gut und Geld, und der Tugend Triebe: Schön ist Gottes Welt." (There is a lot to enjoy in God's world: wine and the sun in the spring, and string playing, friendship, the love of the spouse, honour, goods and money, the urge of virtue: fair is God's world".

Both these cantatas are part of the archive of the Berliner Singakademie, rediscovered some years ago in the Ukranian capital Kiev. The recording is based on the material commissioned by the conductor. And it has to be said: a fine recording it is. The singing of the four soloists is excellent. In particular Markus Schäfer and Klaus Mertens are impressive in the way the express the text. There are some differences between the text as it is sung and as it is printed in the booklet. Since there are no other recordings it is impossible to say whether these are errors from the singers or just printing errors in the booklet.
Orchestra and choir are doing a good job here as well. Only choir could have been a little more transparent: less vibrato would have helped.

There are a couple of things which are open for criticism, though. One aria from the birthday cantata ("Zum Eden bildete das 'Werde!'") has been omitted, which is a shame and really difficult to understand. In the same cantata the recitative "Und doch, seh ich zurück auf jene Bahn" is notated in soprano clef in both the score and the part, but here it is performed by the tenor. In the context that makes sense - textually this recitative is a unity with the arias before and after -, but why should the composer have notated it for soprano? The booklet doesn't explain anything as far as the performance is concerned. In the introductory cantata the part after the sermon opens with a antiphon on a Latin text - a habit when a new pastor was inducted. The booklet says that Carl Philipp Emanuel either used a setting of his own or one of Telemann's settings. Considering the fact that it isn't known what kind of setting was used, it is understandable that the antiphon has been omitted, but it would have been nice to take a setting - speculative as it may have been - just to give some idea of what an induction ceremony was like.

To sum up: this is a very interesting recording, which throws a new light on Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's position in the transition from the baroque to the classical style. Manfred Angerer, in his liner notes, rightly writes: "Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach may seem like a wanderer between two worlds." This recording provides ample evidence for that assessment.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Simone Kermes
Markus Schäfer
Klaus Mertens
Martin Haselböck
ORF Shop

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